Jonathan Strange

by John Quiggin on December 9, 2004

Prompted by Henry and other CTers, I’ve been reading, Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, so I was very interested in Henry’s latest Since it’s too long for a comment , I’ve posted my draft review over the fold. Looking at Jennifer Howard’s review article, I think it’s clear that a lot of people are looking for “Harry Potter for adults” and are likely to be disappointed.

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell gives the alternate history wheel a new spin, by imagining a starting point at which alternate and real histories have converged. Clarke’s Georgian England is just like the real thing, but has a history in which magician-kings ruled the North until some time in the 14th century.

For reasons that are never entirely clear, magic has faded away until its study has become the domain of gentlemanly antiquarians, ‘theoretical magicians’ who never actually cast a spell. Their comfortable clubs are suddenly disrupted by the emergence of a ‘practical magician’, the enigmatic Gilbert Norrell. He is joined by a student and potential rival Jonathan Strange.

Strange is much the more attractive of the pair, but appearances may deceive. Without anything much in the way of moral qualms, he joins Wellington in wreaking magical havoc on the armies of Napoleon, often finding it difficult to put the world back together afterwards.

Meanwhile, running in parallel, there is a traditional faery story, beginning when Norrell makes the classic mistake of accepting an attractive-seeming bargain from a faery king, to spare a young woman from death in return for ‘half her life’.

The real point of the book, though, is not the story but the style, complete with 18th century spellings and rhetoric. Academic readers will particularly enjoy the footnotes, of which I quote only one:

Horace Tott spent an uneventful life in Cheshire, always intending to write a large book on English magic, but never quite beginning. And so he died at seventy-four, still imagining that he might begin next week, or perhaps the week after that[1].

The book has been described as ‘Harry Potter for grownups’, and this is true in a sense, but also misleading. Most of those who loved JK Rowling’s magical version of the Billy Bunter stories will find Clarke’s recreation of the 18th century novel dry, puzzling and far too long. However, those of us with omnivorous tastes in reading may get enjoyment from both.

fn1. Footnoting the footnote, it was this post by Kieran that convinced me to go out and buy the book straight away.

{ 7 comments }

1

Ayjay 12.10.04 at 4:15 am

What I think Clarke gets so beautifully in the novel is the truly uncanny, amoral character of Faery: it is peopled by beings who are (as Tolkien said) not really “supernatural” but rather more fully “natural” than human beings, and who therefore are (like the rest of Nature) indifferent to our concerns. That’s what makes Faery a “perilous country,” as Tolkien puts it in his lovely late story “Smith of Wooten Major,” which captured this Unheimlichkeit better than anything I knew until Clarke’s far more ambitious book came along.

But perhaps Clarke’s greatest stroke of genius is narrating the uncanny perilousness of Faery in that civil, balanced, gently ironic Jane-Austenish voice. The way the narrative substance and the narrator’s style interact with each other is the really special thing about this book.

2

Jackmormon 12.10.04 at 5:36 am

Okay, here’s my beef with this novel. I’m ready to take flak for it and welcome constructive comments about it. Okay.

She uses the nineteenth-century slow, revelatory mode but doesn’t use it to construct character.

So it’s a fairly hollow pastiche, right? Clever, funny, well-done, I’ll admit. But to slow narrative down as she does without any real payoff if terms either of narrative, character, or sundry other philosophical purposes seems to me to be sheer indulgence.

I’ve only read the book once. Please, someone give me a reason to try again, as so many people seemed to like it.

3

Andrew Conway 12.10.04 at 3:57 pm

I found the novel good in parts, but disappointingly lifeless — and also rather puzzling in the way it takes the conventions of fantasy literature and then doesn’t do much with them. It begins as an alternate-reality novel, but gradually you realise it’s nothing of the sort; Clarke isn’t interested in imagining history-as-it-might-have-been, she simply plonks the imaginary world of Faerie into the middle of the real world of nineteenth-century England. The result is a curious amalgam, a not-quite-alternate world in which the irruption of magic into medieval England has apparently made no difference to the subsequent course of European history.

There is also something irritatingly arch about Clarke’s pastiche of Jane Austen. “Look at me, everyone! aren’t I clever! Look at me imitating the immortal Jane! Tee-hee, how whimsical! And guess what? I’ve put footnotes into my novel, just as if I were writing a work of history instead of a work of fiction ! Tee-hee, tee-hee! How playfully postmodernist I am!”

This is Jane Austen slash fiction, an amusing experiment, but not one I’d want to revisit or that anyone else should wish to repeat.

4

Ray 12.10.04 at 4:32 pm

Its not really Jane Austen though, is it? The Jane Austen meets Harry Potter is just shorthand for lazy journos. Its not about marraige, and the master/servant social relations it features are not Austen’s usual stomping ground.

5

Karin 12.10.04 at 4:40 pm

Er, technically, “Jane Austen slash fiction” would have Mr. Darcy hopping into bed with Willoughby. Or similar.

As for JS&MN, I’m enjoying it so far, although I’m only about halfway through. The pastiche aspect is pretty entertaining for me, but I’m something of a lit geek. Whether it adds up to anything more substantial, in my mind, remains to be seen once I finish it.

I suppose lazy journos have glommed onto the “Jane Austen” thing because 1) it’s Regency England and 2) it’s all arch and stuff. It’s also a social novel, as are Austen’s, but Austen is generally more concerned with female society than with geopolitics. It puts me in mind somewhat more of the O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books, but perhaps that’s only on account of the Napoleonic Wars thing.

6

Martin 12.10.04 at 8:52 pm

I haven’t read Jonathan Strange yet (if ever) but some of the remarks in the comments, e.g., Karin’s, remind me that one shouldn’t be too narrowly essentialist about the character of books or genres. To take some examples from Karin, when I read Pride and Prejudice for high school English class, I interpreted it as being primarily about economics. While this was somewhat wilfull, it had a great deal of truth in it. I also remember my teacher making some remarks about Mr. Bennet that made me see the book as being about family dynamics over time, in the manner of The Magnificant Ambersons.

Reversing the medal, I am a fan of the Aubrey-Maturin books but I often describe them, not entirely ironically, as regency romances for boys.

7

Randolph Fritz 12.11.04 at 8:39 am

“She uses the nineteenth-century slow, revelatory mode but doesn’t use it to construct character.”

No, she’s constructing a world order. And the dominant character of that world is only revealed–though there are hints–at the very end of the book.

Sherwood Smith, herself a very very sharp author and critic, comments: “I don’t know why Austen keeps being evoked whenever the book is referenced. Well, Austen is an easy flag to wave when a woman writes a book that is set, at least initially, during the Regency period. I have seen a couple of sly, clever homages to Austen, but the feel of the prose is an expert blend of the modern and the period (with Austenian spellings, such as ‘chuse’)– conveying to me a sense of Trollope and Thackeray in scene structure, character descriptions, narrative commentary, etc.” –http://www.livejournal.com/users/sartorias/41186.html

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